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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Consultative Meeting with Interested Governments on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South-East Asia, Geneva, 11 December 1978

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Consultative Meeting with Interested Governments on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South-East Asia, Geneva, 11 December 1978

11 December 1978
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May I begin by welcoming you most warmly to these consultations.

Many of you have travelled long distances to be here today. Your presence underlines what we all perceive: our meeting is timely, the issues we must address are critical. I am most grateful for your participation.

I believe that the aim of these consultations is clear. First, they must identify the ways of alleviating and solving the problems of refugees and displaced persons in South East Asia. Then, they must translate these ways into immediate action and results. To this end, our discussions should focus, sharply, on practical measures that can and must be taken. I am confident that statements by participants will accord with this aim.

We are all acutely aware of the problems. No doubt, individual governments will wish to express their very real individual concerns and preoccupations. I trust that these will increase our mutual understanding. We must, however, move beyond the statement of known positions and difficulties. We must realize that existing efforts must be supplemented by additional initiatives, inspired by truly humanitarian impulses, for this is what the situation requires.

These consultations are private. We can and should speak frankly and freely, for that is the only way in which we will reach practical conclusions. We must, however, turn our backs on political debate, for the work of my Office - anywhere in the world and regardless of the forum - must always be entirely humanitarian and non-political. With this in mind, I believe that it should not be the purpose of these consultations to discuss and adopt resolutions. Rather, our consultations should provide a clear understanding of where we stand, and of where and how to proceed. It is this, I hope, that will be reflected in a summing-up by UNHCR, at the conclusion of the consultations tomorrow afternoon.

While we meet in private, it is clear that there is vast interest in what, precisely, we will achieve and this is as it should be. Our achievement will be measured, in practical terms, by the results. These consultations should not, therefore, be seen as a panacea in themselves.

I must add, at this stage, and underline, that the problem of refugees and displaced persons in South East Asia, critical as it is, is but one of many acute problems facing my Office and the international community in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. On these, I have recently reported fully both to my Executive Committee and to the Third Committee of the General Assembly. It would be callous for us to measure degrees of human suffering and it would be contrary to the purpose of this Office to consider some situations more deserving of attention and assistance than others. We are the United Nations because our concerns, by definition, stem from our shared humanity, predicament and hopes. As an Office, our sensitivity and concerns must be universal, because the problems we face are universal. This being said, it is also evident that the particular and present dimensions of the South East Asian situation require, today, a consultation such as this.

Distinguished Delegates, in preparation for this meeting, we circulated a Note in advance outlining the problems in South East Asia and the issues that, in our opinion, require careful consideration. In these opening comments, I do not propose to review what is already contained in the Note, nor anticipate discussion on the Agenda items.

I feel it must be reiterated at the outset, however that it is, ultimately, in the power of governments, not of UNHCR, to create the fundamental conditions in which existing problems can be resolved, and fresh problems avoided. The efforts of UNHCR cannot substitute for the will and determination of governments to achieve durable solutions. Sometimes the obvious needs to be stated: UNHCR is an organisation, not a country. By itself, UNHCR can neither grant asylum, nor provide resettlement, nor any durable solution. This is why these consultations are essential: the problems we face are international in scope, they demand that each country - whether of the region or beyond - squarely discharges its humanitarian responsibility. If this is done, as it must, there is no reason why, together, we cannot find the solutions that are necessary.

It is in this spirit that I should like to share our approach to these consultations with you. We all realize that there are many and diverse reasons why we are confronted by the problem of refugees and displaced persons in South East Asia. Of course, this problem - like all others that we face - has political overtones. Not unnaturally, these overtones and. the problem itself, are viewed from angles that are often widely different. There are the perspectives of the region, which vary even within the region. There are the perspectives of potential countries of resettlement which, again, are multiple; and there are the perspectives of those who are contributing financially. All of these points of view are influenced by considerations that are both domestic and external, political and practical. We understand this. It is our view, though, that these consultations must not sharpen the difference in perspectives. Rather, we must face the interrelationships in the situation and find a common way to be of maximum help to human beings in evident distress, wherever they are in the region, not merely selectively. If we fail to do so, there will be additional reasons for problems to spill over frontiers.

Above all, this requires that we recognize a humanitarian issue when we see one, not confound it with other considerations. Our approach must be as clear as the problem is stark: we must not ask how a drowning man how he came to be in those straits. Still less is there time to question if he has relatives abroad, is bilingual, skilled or physically or mentally handicapped. Asylum, at least temporarily, must be given immediately and durable solutions - on as wide a basis as possible and with the widest measure of support and understanding - must be devised in response to humanitarian needs, needs that are surely self-evident. We are not so naive as to assume that governments will not wish to weigh various factors in formulating policy. But there is the greatest necessity, in formulating policy for refugees and displaced persons, that the humanitarian objective should not itself be shrouded by ancillary considerations, however important the latter might be.

As we rightly and necessarily concentrate our efforts and attention on future action, we could do well to remember what has, in fact, already been achieved. Self-sufficiency programmes are underway for some 150 000 refugees and displaced persons in Viet Nam. These and related programmes, must continue, with international help. Durable solutions have been found, through third country resettlement, for some 135 000 other persons from the region. They have been moved to 21 countries and have started new lives. This is a considerable achievement, one that is among the more significant responses of the international community to problems of concern to my Office since it was established. I wish to express my deep gratitude to the governments that have assisted, those of the region, those of resettlement, and those that have contributed financially. But in relation to the pending caseload, it is evident that our solutions have been far from sufficient; this is why we are here today.

The case of the vessel, Hai Hong, which recently arrived off the west coast of Malaysia, served to illustrate our present dilemma. It posed a clear humanitarian problem, which should have brooked no confusion. If it were not the concern of the international community, then of whose concern was it? I have heard disclaimers of concern, but no answers to that question. The Hai Hong did, however, show that the international community can react quickly. The 2,500 people on board have been, or shortly will be, accepted for resettlement. The question is, why must we wait for a Hai Hong to act swiftly and to arouse international response?

I cannot but note that while attention was focused or the Hai Hong, thousands of others arrived or needed help in the region but were outside the limelight. And thousands already arrived and fortunate enough to have been accepted for resettlement, wait weeks or even months for departure from over-crowded camps. Others, the least fortunate, have not even that hope; they have been told that they do not meet the criteria of any country of resettlement. These criteria should be reviewed. The restoration of the dignity of the refugees and displaced persons requires at least an end to idleness, and the prospect of working for self-sufficiency.

Since our Note for these consultations was written, we have been able to update the numbers of refugees and displaced persons whose future we consider today. You will see from the data as of 30 November that, last month, over 7,000 new arrivals were registered in Thailand for UNHCR assistance, bringing the total for whom solutions are presently required to over 130 000. In 1978 alone, the number of arrivals in Thailand exceeds those for whom durable solutions have been found by some 40 000. Likewise, in November, over 21 500 boat cases arrived in various parts of South Last Asia, bringing the total for whom solutions are presently required to over 50 000.

A year and a half ago, in July 1977, representatives of States Members of the Executive Committee met to consider a number of pressing problems, among them the urgent needs of some 82 000 persons in Thailand and some 5,500 boat cases. The Information Note then prepared for governments by UNHCR warned that despite repeated appeals, durable solutions and offers of resettlement had failed to keep pace with needs.

Many appeals later - the most recent by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on 2 December 1978 - it must unfortunately be said that the response of the international community still falls short of the pace of developments.

Distinguished Delegates, a truly humanitarian response must be determined by the nature and extent of the humanitarian needs. The response must not simply reflect national preoccupations and anxieties, for then it would unreasonably be hedged by restrictive attitudes, ad hoc ceilings, quotas and inhibiting criteria. Nor should the response be pressured by arbitrary time limits, or only seek to provide minimal relief in the short term. This problem is in its fourth year and more acute than ever. The response of all governments, the vital humanitarian response, must match the challenge fully, plan for the future and have the stamina to stay the course.